Israel protests over release of 'assassins'

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Israel delivered an angry protest to Ramallah yesterday after the Palestinian Authority was said to have released three gunmen from Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement suspected of plotting to assassinate Ehud Olmert while the Israeli Prime Minister was driving to the first summit to take place in the West Bank since the intifada broke out seven years ago.

The alleged assassination plot was revealed yesterday by Yuval Diskin, director of Israel's Shin Bet internal security service, who told the cabinet that a rogue Fatah cell had planned to ambush Mr Olmert's car as it entered Jericho in August. The gunmen were said to have been members of the Palestinian security forces, who had inside information on the convoy's route and the precautions taken for the meeting.

"We shall not ignore this," Mr Olmert said yesterday before leaving for talks with French and British leaders in Paris and London. "The inappropriate way in which the suspects were handled is part of a pattern which must change."

Nonetheless, he resisted right-wing opposition calls to freeze negotiations with Mr Abbas and said he would not cancel Israel's participation in US President George Bush's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. Following an unproductive shuttle last week between Jerusalem and Ramallah by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, there is speculation that the conference may be postponed until December.

A few days before the August summit, Israeli intelligence tipped off their Palestinian opposite numbers, who detained three of the alleged plotters.

Tzipi Livni, the Foreign Minister who now heads Israel's negotiating team, insisted that Mr Abbas' administration had to pursue the war on terror and keep suspects in custody if it wanted to reach an agreement. "A return to the revolving door policy fundamentally harms Israel's ability to trust the Palestinian side," she said.

Tawfiq Tirawi, the Palestinian intelligence chief, confirmed the arrests, but denied that the suspects had been released.

Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, played down the episode. "There was nothing imminently dangerous," he said. "We are trying the very best we can to bring law and order to the cities, villages and areas that are under our control."

Israeli media reported yesterday that Arab governments were trying to make peace between Fatah, which governs the West Bank, and Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in June. With Gaza crippled by siege, more moderate members of the Islamic movement's political wing seem to be having second thoughts.

Ghazi Hamad, who resigned as Hamas spokesman after the coup, said yesterday that Hamas paid a high price, particularly with isolation by the international community, and the leaders took on a greater burden than they could bear. A ceasefire was agreed yesterday between Hamas and a Gaza clan loyal to Fatah. Six people, including a child, were killed in gun fights which erupted last Wednesday and continued on Saturday.